“Doc, I have trouble going to sleep at night…”
A common complaint that I get in my sleep clinic is insomnia. Insomnia is something that plagues a large portion of our society. Insufficient sleep due to insomnia has been associated with heart disease, diabetes, obesity and even cancer. The good news is there are some simple fixes that will increase your chances of getting a good night’s sleep.
The Most Common Type of Insomnia
In this blog, I will address a common type, sleep onset insomnia which is defined as taking more than 20 minutes to fall asleep when you go to bed. You must be thinking… “WHAT?!?! 20 minutes! It takes me at least 45 minutes to fall asleep!” Well, you may have sleep onset insomnia.
My patients often tell me that even though they are tired, they just can’t fall asleep. In the digital age we live in, it is possible that your electronic device (laptop, television, tablet or phone) is contributing to your sleep onset insomnia.
What Causes Technology Based Insomnia?
Electronics are known to have high levels of blue light which can have a negative effect on sleep. Studies have shown that blue light suppresses the release of melatonin, a hormone associated with sleep and responsible for the circadian rhythm in our bodies. During a normal 24-hour period, your body starts increasing melatonin secretion from your pineal gland at night. Studies have shown that blue light curbs this secretion.
Blue light not only affects your ABILITY to fall asleep, it also affects the QUALITY of your sleep. Blue light has been shown to decrease the amount of deep sleep you get. Sleep consists of different stages of deep sleep and REM sleep. Using EEG (or brainwave monitoring), deep sleep is characterized by delta waves. Blue light has been shown to decrease that amount of delta waves observed during sleep, thus decreasing your deep sleep. Deep sleep is important because we also know that brain consolidation and learning occurs during deep sleep.
What Do Sleep Doctors Tell Our Patients?
We recommend putting away electronics at least 30 minutes - 1 hour before you go to sleep. Understandably, this is easier said than done.
There are other “poor sleep hygiene” habits I tell my patients to work on, in addition to putting away their phones earlier at night. Your brain needs to be conditioned to think that when you get into bed, your body goes to sleep. In other words, you should try to avoid TV shows/movies, eating, planning and even reading in bed. All of these can be done outside your bed and if possible outside your bedroom. Finally, I also encourage avoiding any stimulants (i.e. caffeine or nicotine) after noon, and trying to keep a regular bedtime.
Some Poor Sleep Hygiene Habits to Avoid are:
- Lacking a consistent sleep schedule. For example, taking a lot of daytime naps, spending too much time in bed, or highly variable bedtimes/rising times.
- Consuming alcohol, nicotine or caffeine before bedtime.
- Engaging in mental, physical or emotional activities close to bedtime.
- Using your bed for activities not related to sleeping, such as TV, reading, studying, snacking, etc.
- Not creating a comfortable sleep environment through lighting, temperature, and bedding.
Of course, there are instances in which insomnia persists, even after doing all of the above. This may be indicative of other underlying causes (circadian rhythm disorders, mood disorders, etc.) which need further investigation or work up. However, if my patients are diligent about changing bad habits, they usually find their sleep can improve.
Want know what good sleep hygiene looks like? Take a look at these 6 tips!